June 01, 2008

Takashi Miike's Visitor Q: Salvation Through Destruction

Supernatural horror film is an odd genre that attracts enthusiasts for different reasons. For me, I most enjoy the surreal, absurd elements they all contain and which the best of them consciously exploit. This usually, but not always, is embodied within these films as a kind of sly humor. The films of George Romero, for instance, give society as well as the viewer a little poke in the eye every so often by exaggerating some traits. In Romero's case, this comes across most obviously in his Dawn of the Dead, with its zombies-in-a-shopping-mall depiction of the priorities of American consumerism. What could be more of a "consumer" than a mindless walking corpse that devours the living flesh? Such depictions are both absurd and political.

This mechanism isn't solely to be found in outright horror films, though. I spent last year getting acquainted with the works of Luis Buñuel for similar reasons. His surrealist absurdity and political sensibility as well as his perception of the inherent humor in human nature make for some amazing films. Cet obscur objet du désir, Le Fantôme de la liberté and La Voie lactée rank among my favorite films for many of the same reasons that I so enjoy a good supernatural horror movie. The celebrity bomber in Le Fantôme is every bit as absurd and rationally unbelievable as Hellraiser's Pinhead.

More recently, I've been taking in the films of Japanese director Takashi Miike. Miike is a provocateur, a Buñuel on acid if you like. He goes out of his way to shock the viewer but not for the value of shock alone. Watching Miike at his best is like being awakened roughly from sleep. It may be unpleasant but it gets the job done and it grabs every bit of one's attention. While Miike's films contain horrific elements I don't think calling them horror films does them justice; he has more in common with Buñuel than with Romero or Clive Barker (perhaps a bit more with the former than the latter). I've so far seen several of Miike's better-known works: Audition, Ichi the Killer, Imprint, and One Missed Call (the original, not the gutless American remake). As off-the-wall as all of those films are, nothing in them prepared me for Visitor Q, which may be one of the most original and most disturbing films ever made — and possibly one of the greatest of the last 30 years if not ever. Visitor Q is the Citizen Kane of absurdism, the Godfather of shocking surrealism. It is transgressive, repulsive, poetic and heartbreaking all at the same time. I doubt that there has ever been anything like it.

In Visitor Q, Miike creates the ultimate dysfunctional family, the pathetic Yamazakis. The household is headed, at least nominally, by Kiyoshi, a host and creator of reality television shows who has no empathy for any other human beings and treats their pain solely as fodder for better ratings. Keiko with a clientHis wife, Keiko, is a limping heroin addict who brings in extra money by prostituting herself as a reluctant dominatrix but cannot stand up to her son, Takuya, who takes out the aggression that results from his being horribly bullied upon her by beating her with an assortment of implements he keeps in a special closet in his neurotically neat room. The fourth member of the clan is daughter Miki, a prostitute who, like her father, always has camera in hand to turn her trysts into a sort of reality show. In the opening scene, a chapter entitled "Have you ever done it with your father?" Kiyoshi is Miki's client; the whole thing is videotaped. The shocking, terrible incest that takes place is just a disappetizer that sets the tone for the rest of the film. Be warned, it gets harsher from here and by degrees more absurd than the tragic/comic interactions ensuing when daughter criticizes father's poor sexual performance. To say that this film isn't for everyone and that the squeamish will spend the better part of its run time averting their gaze from the screen might be an understatement.

Into this appalling morass descends Visitor Q, a destroying angel of mercy who insinuates himself into the picture by clubbing Kiyoshi over the head with a rock while he waits for a train and then again a bit later while he walks down the street. Visitor Q sets about both observing and destroying the Yamazakis, sometimes holding the camera as if creating his own show and sometimes provoking the action as every imaginable transgression is engaged in by the family itself. Kiyoshi decides to turn his son's beatings and general degredation by his bullies into a reality show in which he himself will play the father. As the bullies fire Roman candles through the windows of the Yamazaki house, Kiyoshi declares that he "doesn't know how to feel as a father," a partial truth. Kiyoshi feels nothing unless it's rage or shame as we learn in the scene where he rapes and murders his co-anchor when she expresses her loathing of him.

This, however, is only the ultimate transgression in a long list of depravities that includes a graphic depiction of Keiko's newfound pride in her ability to lactate in a demonstration of which she literally floods the family kitchen for the benefit of a bemused Visitor Q who sits watching while shielding himself with a little plastic umbrella. By this point, the family itself and the lives of all involved have been completely destroyed. This last horror is what ultimately saves them; salvation can only come when the self-debasement of these people is total, and this is what the mysterious Visitor makes happen. If we haven't figured this out by now, Takuya lets us know by expressing his gratitude for the devastation — while lying face-down in the pool of his mother's secretions, like a baby re-immersed in the womb.

Visitor Q is a powerful movie in many ways, and one that is going to repulse anyone who isn't every bit as psychopathic as is Kiyoshi. Thus, it is a trial to get through the film, particularly the horror-comedy of a scene of necrophilia gone terribly wrong that results in the dutiful Keiko having to assist her husband with a shot of heroin and a bath of vinegar to get him free of the corpse into which he has inserted himself (ahem). The themes of transgression and redemption ultimately unite in a final scene that itself partakes simultaneously of the two modes. Miki comes home after her own encounter with Visitor Q in which she is treated by the stranger in much the same way as he treated Kiyoshi, leaving her battered and scarred. In the end, though, every wound on every character is healed — both the psychic and the physical. The final scene is masterful; Miike brings together revulsion and peace in a manner I've never seen done before. In the end, he leaves the viewer as he found the viewer; conflicted and ambivalent. It is impossible to say by the end of this film whether the final scene is right or wrong; it is only necessary for the chaos to end.

Visitor Q is a great movie, but the ways in which it is great are often offensive in the extreme to those of us who are fortunate enough not to be Yamazakis. If one can feel empathy for other human beings then this film is challenging in the extreme. Nevertheless it is also an extremely rewarding film for those with a stomach strong enough to make it all the way through as Miike defies us to switch the film off. Love it or hate it, though, there has never been another film quite like Visitor Q. I don't like to use the clichéd word "extreme," but in this case it is truly warranted. In the end, Visitor Q must be experienced; it cannot be explained adequately in a few lines of text. Indeed, the questions it brings up and never fully answers will leave the astute viewer wondering about them for some time to come. This movie is messy, terrible and wonderful. It's 100% Miike without the slightest bit of self-censorship other than what I can only assume is a humorous device of always placing a little blurred circle over genitalia. After all, with its repertoire of incest, rape, murder, necrophilia and various shades of violence throughout, the graphic depiction of a penis would be tame stuff by comparison.

Visitor Q is Miike's dare to his audience. I recommend it highly, but first you must ask yourself how much you can take and then if you can take just a little bit more. This is a spiky jewel, indeed.

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